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I am very pleased to welcome you again to Brussels, Mr Prime Minister [of Ukraine, Volodymyr Groysman], together with your colleagues for the fifth meeting of the EU–Ukraine Association Council.
Let me start by saying once again, very clearly, how much we value our relations with Ukraine and how much we also support Ukraine in its reform drive, as reflected in the new financing agreements signed in the margins of our Association Council.
Our meeting today took place against the background of an escalation around the Kerch Strait and this is the first issue that brings us together and the first issue that the Prime Minister [Volodymyr Groysman] and myself discussed this morning.
The European Union has been united and firm in saying, from the very beginning, that there is no justification for the use of military force by Russia against Ukrainian vessels, and that all detained Ukrainian seamen as well as vessels seized need to be released. Free passage of ships through the Kerch Strait needs to be ensured in accordance with international law. It has been and it continues to be our very firm and clear united position from the European Union side, as reconfirmed by the Heads of State or Government of the 28 Member States [of the European Union] just last Thursday.
As far as we are concerned, we are looking into how we can now further support the Ukrainian regions affected by the escalation in the Azov Sea, including through the €50 million programme we have recently launched for the east of Ukraine and through other initiatives in cooperation with the European Investment Bank.
Let me stress that the European Union continues to support by 100% Ukraine's independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, within its internationally recognised borders, and underline the need for a complete implementation of the Minsk agreements. We also continue and will continue to provide humanitarian aid to help the civilian populations in the east of Ukraine. Just last Thursday, an additional €4 million were allocated for this purpose.
Let me restate here what I mentioned once again to the Prime Minister [Volodymyr Groysman] today, but certain things need to be mentioned again and again. We will not recognise the illegal annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol by Russia and have condemned the ongoing militarisation of the Crimean peninsula. We keep calling for the immediate release of all Ukrainian citizens detained illegally in the Crimean peninsula and in Russia, including Oleg Sentsov who has just been awarded the Sakharov Prize last week by the European Parliament.
The European Union continues to be consistently at the side of the Ukrainian people, and we will continue to do so.
The Association Agreement is now delivering results. It is something Ukrainian people have asked for for a long time, and now it is delivering the first results.
Bilateral trade continues to increase with the European Union firmly begin Ukraine's main trading partner, and with more than 500,000 Ukrainians that have now been able to visit the EU without the need for a visa.
In our meeting today we also discussed progress that Ukraine has made, and I commend the leadership of the Prime Minister [Volodymyr Groysman], his personal commitment, and the commitment of all his government that continues to deliver on citizens' expectations, despite the very serious challenges that Ukraine is facing.
After Ukraine had implemented the agreed policy conditions, we have disbursed to Ukraine last week the first tranche of €500 million of the new EU macro financial assistance programme.
Ukraine has also made important progress in bringing its legislation in line with the European Union acquis. New legislation has been adopted on intellectual property rights, on the environment, on food safety, on energy, on consumer protection, and a new company law.
Let me be very clear on this. We acknowledge and commend this work that has been done, these results that have been achieved. Now obviously, further work is needed, but on the basis of results that are already there, and that we recognise as very positive ones.
Further work is needed in particular for the improvement of the investment and business climate, and corporate governance. Ukraine has taken important steps in the fight against corruption which continues to be one of the key challenges.
I know the determination the Prime Minister [Volodymyr Groysman] is showing and has always been showing on this particular file. We would both like to see the high anti-corruption court finally fully operational as soon as possible. We also discussed the importance of the specialised anti-corruption institutions being able to work independently and effectively.
When it comes to the fight against corruption and to reforms in general, the civil society plays a key role. I would say it is one of the main assets, the main energies the country has. This is a strength that Ukraine should make best use of and that needs to be protected. That is why threats or harassment of their work is not only unacceptable, but must be avoided at all costs and perpetrators should be swiftly brought to justice.
On another page, as a follow-up to our last summit, we discussed the ambition of Ukraine to deepen cooperation in energy, justice and home affairs, customs, and digital economy.
As a sign of the importance of energy issues, Vice-President [for the Energy Union, Maroš] Šefčovič joined us today for our first session. We had an exchange on the need for continued reforms in the gas and electricity markets to make sure that they will be fully functioning. We welcome the progress made in updating the Association Agreement's energy annex to reflect the evolving EU acquis.
We will also intensify cooperation in the area of justice and home affairs within the framework that the Association Agreement provides. We will focus on issues of mutual interest where tangible results can be achieved, such as integrated border management. We agreed to assess the state of play of Ukraine's digital economy to support the work of bringing it in line with the European Union rules.
Let me conclude by thanking you again, Mr Prime Minister [Volodymyr Groysman] for your friendship but most of all for the work that you have done, and you continue to do, to lead Ukraine on the path of reforms and of closer relations with the European Union.
I am sure you will continue this difficult, but so important work during the course of next year. Some say regardless of elections, those of us that believe in democracy believe that elections are a good opportunity for pushing reforms forward and not an obstacle – never. All the best in the continuation of this difficult but important work, and you know that you can count on the European Union to support and accompany you and your country in every single step of this path.
Thank you very much.
Link to the video: https://ec.europa.eu/avservices/video/player.cfm?ref=I165660
Questions and Answers
Q: A year ago, Ukraine asked to deepen sectoral integration. Could you tell us what concrete results have been achieved in this regards? Second question: Foreign Minister [of the Russian Federation, Sergey] Lavrov said a couple of hours ago that Ukraine was planning for the end of this year a military provocation against Russia and that Russia will react strongly. What are your comments on these remarks, and related to this, Ukraine has been saying that Russia is building up military capabilities near the Ukrainian border. Can the EU confirm this?
I think I covered already the first part of the question, as I mentioned the different fields in which the cooperation has deepened during this year and also the plans we have to deepenit even further next year in different sectoral areas. We dedicated a lot of our work this morning to the concrete projects on different fields that I mentioned extensively during my long introduction, from energy to digital, to all the others.
When it comes to the developments we are seeing – we are seeing them. We have been very clear from the very beginning that in particular the militarisation of the Azov Sea is something we believe is very dangerous. And this is why from the very beginning we have called for a de-escalation, a decrease of tension and actions from the Russian side to step back - and this even before the latest incidents; you can check a debate I had in the European Parliament in Strasbourg in October on the Azov Sea where I was calling for a decrease of tensions.
We have seen these developments since spring/summer. I called in the European Parliament very clearly for a clear de-escalation from the Russian side because it is also a matter of concern for the European Union, not only in terms of security, but also in terms of the economic impact of the inspections, including on vessels that are EU-flagged.
I discussed this with [Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation] Sergey Lavrov a couple of weeks ago when we met at the margins of the OSCE Ministerial in Milan. We had a long bilateral meeting where we discussed about this and I made very clear to him the position of the European Union and our expectations.
So, not only we see the situation, but we clearly pass messages in a very united manner. I am sure you have seen theconclusions of the European Council last Thursday that call things by their name and spell out very clearly the expectations we have. And I want to also stress: this is a position that we are coordinating constantly with our partners in the G7, which I believe can be the most effective manner to exercise diplomatic and political pressure over Russia on something we see has happened in clear violation of international law.
Q: What was your message today to the Ukrainian side in relation to the state of emergency that has been declared in certain areas?
First of all, let me say the main message we have passed all over these weeks - today with the Prime Minister and his delegation,Wednesday evening to the President [of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko] as he was here in the Council and I met him together with President Tusk, Monday with Foreign Minister [of Ukraine, Pavlo] Klimkin thatjoined us at the Foreign Affairs Council - is, as I said in the beginning, a very clear message of the fact that we see a violation of international law from the Russian side and that we stand side by side with Ukraine for its full sovereignty, territorial integrity within its internationally recognised borders. This is absolutely clear. Next to this there is the hope and the aspiration to see de-escalation. This has always been the European approach. Obviously, in this case the message has to be delivered on the Russian side. That is very clear to us.
When it comes to the martial law, we had the chance to discuss it - mainly with the President [Poroshenko] on Wednesday. We touched upon this briefly with the Prime Minister today. The message is to handle this with care, avoid that this has consequences in this region of Ukraine, and in particular with the Prime Minister today, we addressed the issue of municipal elections that we believe need to take place, including in the areas where this martial law has been provisionally applied.
We received guarantees on the fact that thetemporary effect is going to expire soon and that the work will continue as soon as this is possible in the coming weeks, without affecting, in particular, the electoral process.
Q: Is there any kind of dialogue going on in the European capitals on strengthening sanctions against Russia? Also, in light of the Action Plan against Disinformation that the EU recently presented, how can the EU and Ukraine cooperate to address hybrid threats?
First of all, on this, I presented together with the Commission just a couple of weeks ago[on 5 December] an Action Plan, a package to tackle disinformation.
This provides us with more instruments, more tools, both financial and in terms of human resources, to work on this which is a challenge for the European Union, but also for our partners - in particular our partners in the East. And Ukraine in particular, heading towards an electoral year is probably exposed to some of these hybrid threats more than others.
We have agreed to strengthen our cooperation to tackle disinformation. First and foremost, with an active work on both our sides to present correct information. Obviously, this is also part of the exercise, but we have a number of projects that are going to start or that are already ongoing to address this particular issue. I am sure that we can share with you all the details, if you want to have more technical information about what these projects are about, how much money is allocated for that and how much we are going to increase our human and financial resources in cooperating in this field.
When it comes to the sanctions, it is actually not correct that we did not increase the sanctions. Thursday night the Heads of State and Government renewed for another six months the sectoral sanctions against Russia that are linked to the full implementation of the Minsk Agreements. As you know, our sanctions have solid legal bases and clear political frameworks. But last Monday, so just one week ago, the Foreign Affairs Council decided new listings for persons responsible for the so-called elections in the east of Ukraine.
And just a few months ago, we introduced new sanctions for the entities that were responsible for the construction of the Kerch Bridge. So the sanction regime we have today is different than the one we had six months ago.
Obviously, the situation continues to be always under scrutiny from our side. But always based, as I said, on assessments that have to be legally very sound and on the basis of unanimity among member states.
Link to the video: https://ec.europa.eu/avservices/video/player.cfm?ref=I165661